George Washington House Barbados – Uncommon Attraction
George Washington House Barbados. Of all the places where it’s alleged that the first U.S. President once slept, this stately manor may just be the most significant. Indeed, old GW may not have even survived the Revolutionary War if not for the time he enjoyed here!
Barbados Does a Body Good
This much disputed chapter in American/Barbadian history begins in 1751. That’s when a 19 year-old George made his first and only trip outside of the United States. The destination, of course, was Barbados. The occasion: illness.
GW, though, wasn’t sick. At least not when he arrived in Bridgetown. Instead, it was his older (by 14 years) half-brother/guardian, Lawrence, who was ailing at the time. His affliction: tuberculosis; an illness that famously temperate Barbados was tailor-made to treat.
George Washington House Barbados played host to the Washington bros for two months. During said time, young George got his first look at modern society.
Molding the Young George Washington
Barbados was as hopping a corner of the British Empire as anywhere not named London back then. Military elites, nobles, politicians, scientists, playwrights, scholars – they all frequented Bridgetown throughout the colonial period. George rubbed elbows among the distinguished crowd, the interactions likely influencing his later life.
In fact, the owner of the manor, then known as Bush Hill House as it sits atop Bush Hill, was Captain Crofton. His title: Commander of James Fort, the remnants of which still sit along Carlisle Bay just down the hill from George Washington House. Historical accounts note that George took great interest in closely examining the fortifications, an experience that no doubt helped to develop his military career.
George Washington House Barbados Backstops U.S. War for Independence
At the same time, though, he also developed an illness. His affliction: smallpox.
As it did for his brother, George Washington House Barbados proved an ideal spot for the teenage future President to recover. This would prove pivotal during the Revolutionary War, as smallpox was raging throughout the American Colonies at the time. As he was already inoculated, by virtue of his time in Barbados, George Washington remained healthy, providing the type of strong leadership that helped birth a nation.
Secret Tunnels and Other Things The Washingtons Missed in Barbados
A visit to George Washington House Barbados brings some of the legend of the first President’s time in the Caribbean to life. Notably, though, the manor as it stands today only somewhat resembles what it would’ve looked like in 1751. For one this, there was no second floor. It’s estimated that the addition was made in 1850.
GW and Lawrence also likely never availed themselves of the estate’s watermill and bathhouse, which sit separately from the main house. Archaeologists peg the construction of those structures following the Washingtons’ Barbados escape.
Also predating George and Lawrence are a series of tunnels carved beneath the estate. Solely accessible from George Washington House, a total of nine tunnels extend to various sections of the surrounding shoreline. They lie between 12 and 17-feet below the surface and stretch for more than two miles.
Originally constructed in the 1820s as a drainage system, the Garrison Tunnels also served as potential escape routes for British troops in case of invasion.
As critical as these tunnels obviously were to Bridgetown’s security, they were somehow lost to history during the post-colonial age. Surprisingly, they were rediscovered somewhat by accident in 2011 as part of the restoration of George Washington House.
Editor’s Note: Also in 2011, George Washington House Barbados was designated as a UNESCO protected property within Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison, itself a World Heritage Site.
No Sugarcoating the Past Inside George Washington House
Speaking of the restoration, the Barbados National Trust (BNT), which administers the property today, does a great job of presenting the manor much as it was when GW visited. The ground floor is fully-outfitted with period furnishings and such necessary period items as mosquito netting and chamber pots.
Through every door and around every corner, George Washington House Barbados is a living, breathing representation of the British Colonial Caribbean aesthetic.
Refreshingly, this also includes Britain’s role in the Slave Trade.
Poignant reminders of the abject horrors that attended the enslavement of millions of African people during the British Colonial Era are tastefully displayed upstairs. Barbed-neck collars, chains and other barbarous tools of restraint and punishment offer painful, yet important reminders of the dark past upon which the society of Barbados, and indeed the broader West Indies, has been built.
The displays, and in particular the statues of enslaved African people, were profoundly moving to me.
If You Go…
I visited George Washington House Barbados as part of a private evening cocktail event for the Barbados Rum Experience in October 2023. This was a nighttime affair more focused on hobnobbing with a veritable who’s who of the spirits world. So yeah, I wasn’t as intently focused on the historical elements of the attraction as I normally would be.
This also meant that I didn’t get images. I mean, it was nighttime, and true to the 1750’s aesthetic, lighting was fairly limited. The few photos published here were snapped days later when I snuck back into the property to snag a few exterior shots in the rain.
What’s inside, though, is very much worth checking out, as are the Garrison Tunnels. I’m told visitors can explore via guided tours, something I certainly intend to experience when next I’m in Barbados.
(I’ll be sure to get more photos then as well.)
George Washington House Barbados and the Garrison Tunnels are open daily from 9am to 4pm. For updated information on tours and admission fees, call Tel: 242-228-5461.